Ever since people first got wind that a Nina Simone biopic was in the works starring Zoe Saldana, the project has been dragged all over the internet as the worst casting idea since Gigli. All the while, the filmmakers — including Saldana — have pleaded with folks to wait until the film came out to cast judgment.
This Friday, nearly four years after Nina started shooting, the day will arrive.
I believe the director of Nina, Cynthia Mort, and Saldana, who played Simone and served as an executive producer, came with the best of intentions. However, there is no other way to put it: this is one of the worst musical biopics you will ever see in theaters. At least the Aaliyah biopic was regulated to Lifetime. Thankfully, Netflix released an Oscar nominated documentary, What Happened, Miss Nina Simone?, that will live longer than this film and preserve Simone's legacy. Yes, Nina is as bad as you imagined.
The biggest criticism is Zoe Saldana "blackened" to resemble Nina Simone, who was born Eunice Waymon. Zoe in Nina drag is painful in the trailer, but even worse for 90 minutes. Any solid acting moments from Saldana or the great David Oyelowo are ruined whenever a blotchy, darkened, clay-ish face pops on screen. Zoe Saldana looks more like an X-Men character than the High Priestess of Soul. Surprisingly, there is one scene where Zoe as Nina actually works — when the film is in black and white.
It’s important to note Nina’s dark skin and full features were part of her story. Yes, there are some biopics where the actor doesn’t need to resemble the person. But out of respect for Simone, the story needed the proper actress that didn’t require prosthetics. Regina King, Viola Davis and Kimberly Elise, there are so many to choose from. A dark-skinned actress wouldn't be cast as Lena Horne in a biopic on her life. How could this be done to Nina? The film symbolized deep colorism issues in Hollywood.
If you can possibly see past the offensive makeup, there is the atrocious script, which is 90 percent fiction. As a life-long Nina Simone fan who read her biography, I was wildly confused how many scenarios had no basis in Nina's life. No biopic is 100 percent correct, but it was as if Mort, who also wrote the film, created a story about a separate person and slapped the title of Nina on it. The oddest fabrication was her relationship with her nurse-turned-manager, Clifton Henderson, played by Oyelowo. The story implies there was a sexual relationship between them when it is well known Clifton was gay. That is just one of the many cinematic mishaps in Nina's storytelling. There appeared to be little-to-no research or depth in the classically-trained pianist’s complex life, which has plenty of factual material for a great biopic. Instead, the film exploits and wrongly reinvents Nina as a bottle throwing, overly sexual, cursing, drugged-out junkie — this sounds more like Bessie Smith than Nina Simone.
There should be a rule in Hollywood for musical biopics: if you don't get the rights to the person's music, don't make the film. Prepare yourself: Zoe Saldana is singing Nina Simone. Zoe is a solid singer but Nina's voice was so specific in tone and phrasing, the effort to duplicate her singing sounded like karaoke. It was another awful punch to a clunky, awkward and seriously disappointing movie. The film did not put a spell on me and I was not feeling good. A cinematic insult: Nina Simone would not be proud.
Zoe Saldana is a great actress and I hope the film doesn't put a major dent in her career. Sadly, actresses of color rarely get a chance to fail. While other actresses can spit out flop after flop and still land roles with a multi-million dollar salary. Black and brown actresses don't get that same leeway.
Nina is in select theaters on Friday, April 22.
Watch our vintage interview with Zoe Saldana below:
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